Tuesday, June 15, 2021
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Committee Makes Recommendations for State College Community Oversight Board

After four months of work, an ad hoc study committee appointed by borough council presented its recommendations for a community oversight board for the State College Police Department on Monday night.

The committee recommended a nine-member board largely based on the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement’s monitoring and auditing-focused model, with some investigative elements.

The proposed model would give the board authority to develop an external civilian complaint process as well as access department data for analysis, conduct regular reviews of use-of-force incidents and misconduct complaints, do real-time auditing of internal affairs investigation, and conduct independent reviews of certain closed cases.

It would not have the ability to directly impose discipline, which is governed by collective bargaining agreements.

The estimated cost in the first year would be $165,000, including the hiring of a full-time executive director.

Borough council will schedule a work session in January for further discussion of the recommendations followed by an opportunity for public comment.

Though the idea for implementing one in State College dates back to the 2016 report from the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color, the establishment of a community oversight board is one of several police reform measures to which borough council committed in a resolution passed in June. The resolution came in response to demands from community members, including the 3/20 Coalition, the advocacy group formed following the police shooting death of Osaze Osagie last year in State College.

Police Chief John Gardner expressed support for the board when discussions began over the summer.

A nine-member study committee established in August has held 15 meetings and four public forums and presented to borough council three times before Monday. It also conducted extensive research into existing oversight boards in Pennsylvania and nationally. An oversight board in State College would be just the third in the state, joining Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

‘One of the things that we heard…from the community was that the community is wanting access, a seat at the table and the Civilian Oversight Board would be just that, a seat at the table,’ at-large committee member Dan McKenrick, said.

As recommended, the COB would have access to ‘all relevant information that’s used to track performance measures and assess outcomes related to police practices and community perceptions,’ McKenrick said. That could include complaints about alleged officer misconduct, use of force statistics and data used for potential policy changes by the department. The COB would report out to the community the findings of its data analysis.

McKenrick, an attorney, noted that the Criminal History Record Information Act could place some limitations, as the state law regulates what information can be released to non-criminal justice agencies, which the COB would be. 

In the monitoring realm, members of the COB would have quarterly meetings with the police department to review summaries of any use-of-force incidents or misconduct complaints.

‘From those quarterly reviews and meetings, that would give the COB access to that information to monitor what’s going on currently within the department and be able to report that out to borough council,’ McKenrick said.

Committee chair Mark Bergstrom, also a member of the borough’s Civil Service Commission, said a similar approach was used by the Taser Advisory Committee and that police responded to it positively.

‘It was a really productive thing. We thought that model would work out very well in terms of any use of force or other kinds of incidents,’ Bergstrom said.

Auditing would involve having the COB’s executive director observe in real-time internal affairs investigations. The committee recommended the executive director be permitted to ask questions during interviews, but McKenrick said that also presents challenges that need to be addressed in advance.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that public sector employees must be warned that they are required to answer questions during internal investigations and if they do not they can be terminated. However, if they do respond to questions, their answers cannot be used in a subsequent criminal case.

If not carefully handled, a question from a non-department member like the COB director could muddy the waters.

‘Those lines would have to be very clear of when the internal investigation is going forward versus when the executive director is asking that question throughout the process,’ McKenrick said.

The board also would have authority to conduct independent reviews of closed cases involve incidents resulting in serious injury or death, for the purpose of making recommendations on policies and procedures.

A civilian complaint process developed and implemented by the COB would offer a separate track citizens could pursue outside of going directly to the police, but it would not replace or alter the department’s existing internal affairs section, McKenrick said.

‘One of the reasons why we recommend that is that we’ve heard from the community that there are certain community members that just don’t feel they can trust the internal affairs section to do a formal investigation properly,’ McKenrick said. ‘So we wanted to provide an alternative to that for at least the COB to receive and process those complaints.

‘One of the things the COB could do in this situation is if they have a reluctant complainant file something, they can talk about what the process is, meet with the individual and potentially help them file a formal complaint with the State College Police Department. Or if the individual doesn’t want to go that route they can still maintain that information and decide what they’d like to do with it at a later time.’

McKenrick added that the committee did not recommend any authority for the COB to impose discipline on officers because Pennsylvania’s Act 111 assigns that to the collective bargaining agreement provisions for investigation processes and arbitration. In 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a municipality’s charter cannot supersede the act.

‘The charter couldn’t say that discipline would go to the COB,’ McKenrick said. ‘That would not survive a legal challenge, so we’re not recommending that specifically because of that. We still believe there should be a civil complaint process in place for the COB to receive those complaints and ultimately potential conduct inquiries through that.’

The COB also would be authorized to conduct community outreach efforts, such as education and training on pertinent issues, providing information about its activities and offering opportunities for the public to provide feedback and make reports.

‘That’s all about promoting transparency, because that’s one of the things we’ve heard routinely during the community meetings is community members believe there is a lack of transparency,’ McKenrick said.

Proposed qualifications for serving on the board include that members live or work in the police department’s service area of State College, College Township and Harris Township, not be an employee or elected official of any of those municipalities and not have served in law enforcement within the last three years.

‘The most important category of qualification is a demonstrated capacity for open-mindedness no matter who that person is,’ at-large committee member Janet Irons said.

The committee recommended that the nine members have diverse backgrounds, including members representing ‘people who are underserved, people who are often targets of policing as well as people who are diverse in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation and those kinds of things.’

It called for having several members with specific experiences as well, including:

– A background related to behavioral health;

– A background in law enforcement;

– Experience working with community organizations that serve people in need;

– Knowledge of systemic racism;

– Knowledge or understanding of experiences of children and policing in schools;

– A Penn State student living in the department’s service are.

‘We were guided by the basic belief that we should have as diverse a constituency as possible,’ Irons said.

Members would serve three-year staggered terms, though the committee suggested a Penn State student would serve a two-year term because of the difficulty he or she may have in committing to three years.

Applications would be screened — potentially by a group involving study committee members — and recommended to borough council for approval. COB members would be required to go through orientation and trainings.

At-large committee member Jason Browne said that research of oversight boards around the country found they typically had a budget of 1% to 2% of the police department’s budget. The $165,000 estimated budget for the first year of the COB is equal to about 1.5% of the State College Police Department’s proposed budget for 2021.

Browne said the budget would include $110,000 for an executive director’s salary and benefits. The borough manager would hire the executive director from a pool of candidates recommended by the COB. The estimated budget also includes $25,000 for contracted legal services and $30,000 for operating expenses.

Though Bergstrom said the committee’s charge was to evaluate a COB for State College specifically, the borough may also consider regional collaboration or participation.

Council members had not yet received the full report and recommendations prior to the presentation on Monday night, and most said they would have feedback after reading the report in full.

‘One thing you have convinced me of: We really do need this and it really can be adapted to a community of our size and our needs,’ Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said. ‘I think that makes it easier to work on both the structure and the budget as we face them next year. 

The full report is expected to be posted Tuesday at www.statecollegepa.us.